Saturday, June 15, 2013

Why Mocking "Boston Strong" in Sports Crosses the Line

Cubby Tees


I was halfway around the world when the two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon.  It was three o’ clock in the morning where I was, and I spent the rest of the night trying to get in touch with any family and friends whom I thought may have been nearby, knowing that at the very least this would be a rude awakening for many people like myself who have only seen tragedy on a mass scale in the newspapers of other cities and other countries around the world.

Having lived in Boston for over five years of my life now, and growing up less than an hour outside the city, many different facets of this city have shaped who I am.  I call a milkshake a “frappe,” a water fountain a “bubbler,” and the Boston Red Sox broke my heart until well into my teenage years.  To this day, there are only a few things that can bring tears to my eyes, and highlights of the 2004 Red Sox playoff run are fairly high on that list.

What happened at the marathon this year did not closely affect me.  I had friends who were avid runners that were near the blast site when the bombs went off.  I knew others who worked in the area and had to be evacuated.  However, no one I knew well or loved dearly was physically hurt.  In fact, as is the case with most tragedies I hear about on the news, the one that occurred on Marathon Monday did not properly resonate with me until I found myself in Copley Square last weekend and took the time to see the memorial that has been placed there since the attack.


With that said, I’ve never been one for hyperbole or grand gestures.  If you give me a survey and ask me to “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “agree,” or “strongly agree” on a given topic, it’s very rare that I will give an answer on either extreme end of the spectrum.  There were many people after the attacks who were labeled heroes that I thought may not deserve the title, and there were others who could never receive enough praise for the brave things they did.  Furthermore, I wasn’t sure how I felt about “Boston Strong” being plastered everywhere from banners to billboard, and tee-shirts to bumper stickers.   I don’t feel that I would ever need a catchphrase to define my resilience.  But at the same time, grief is a deeply personal process, and if two simple words like those can provide a sense of community and comfort to so many, I don’t see any reason why I should have a problem with that.

Like with any tragedy, there are people who will try to capitalize on it for their own gain.  I’d like to see every single dollar made from a piece of merchandise with “Boston Strong” scrawled across it to be donated to someone with hospital bills from that day, or to someone with a loved one who never came home.  I know that isn’t going to happen.  That slogan will be commercialized and profits will be pocketed.  Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the way the world works.

The “Boston Strong” logo quickly made its way into professional sports.  In the days following the attacks, cities around the country showed their support, using the phrase in solidarity with the people of Boston.  Professional sports, which can often times bring out the worst in us, finally brought out the best and reminded us that while we may live and die with every homerun hit and every goal scored, we don’t actually live and die when these things occur.

A few weeks after the bombings, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan caught hell for proudly displaying a sign which read “Toronto Stronger” during Game 3 of a playoff series against the Boston Bruins; a game that was played two days after a man who lost both of his legs in the bombings was honored before the puck dropped.  More recently, a Chicago-based clothing company pulled a similarly-themed tee shirt from their website displaying the words “Chicago Stronger” alongside the Blackhawks' well-recognized colored feathers.

The backlash from the tee-shirt has apparently been considerable.  Seeing as most of the backlash was internet-based, I’m sure it was often laced with death threats and obscenities.  In response to this fervent reaction, the clothing company, Cubby Tees, posted a statement on their website which has been selectively quoted in many articles condemning it.

In fairness to those condemning the statement, it begins with a few paragraphs laced with indignation and barbs indicating that Cubby Tees is being bullied and unfairly victimized, labeling those in outrage as people “desperately seeking insult.”  And this is what has been quoted in most of the articles I’ve read about it.

Cubby Tee’s statement goes on to attempt to explain their intended message, and eventually begins to sound less pretentious and more understanding of the gravity of the situation, but while also feeling a need to point out many other tragedies that have occurred in the United States in the past year.  Their stated intention was to satirize the way they feel the “Boston Strong” phrase was hijacked for profit and by mindless sports fans, becoming a trivial hash tag for Facebook and Twitter users and a “frat-boy chant” for the city.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s little hope for the internet.  We live in a world where we tend to hear the loudest voices that feel a need to be heard, which, unfortunately, are often the ones saying the most nonsensical things.  Adding the anonymity of being able to hide behind an email address or a user name, as well as the ability to gain considerable attention or exposure by simply posting something to the web only allows a cocktail of idiocy to proliferate.  So to feel victimized by something so mindless and callous is often times is as unproductive as the initial criticism.

I’m not one to shy away from satire.  I love it, and I love irony.  However, I’m constantly struggling with what is acceptable to satirize, who may be offended by it, and whether or not the satire is worth it in the end.  Satirists have it easy.  We sit in the back of the classroom of life throwing spitballs of criticism at whatever we think is a deserving target, and with that comes the potential for misunderstanding as to why we threw those spitballs in the first place, and if the collateral damage undermines our initial purpose.  However, by the nature of what we do, satirists are bullies, just ones who think that the people we are bullying deserves it.  So, to claim to be a victim of bullying when this satire is misunderstood or disliked is hypocritical.

As I said before, grief is a deeply personal process, experienced differently by everyone.  And by its very nature, it is one that is extremely difficult to satirize.  The point I’m trying to make is not that Cubby Tees made the mistake of trying to ridicule those that were grieving; they made it clear in the statement they posted that this was not the intention.  However, they seemed to miss the prevalent—whether inappropriate or not—link between professional athletics and our outlet for pent-up emotion. 

In times of trouble fans turn to sports as a place to find a sense of community and comfort from like-minded people, just as some people put religion to the same use.  This, to me, is human nature: when something inexplicable happens, we focus our energy into something we can explain and believe in.  With this grief come tears, anger, joy, exuberance, camaraderie, occasional beauty, and occasional reprehensible acts.

This link of grief and sports is probably overstated in regards to the “Chicago Stronger” tee shirt.  Not everyone who criticized Cubby Tees was speaking from a place of hurt or frustration stemming from the bombings.  Some people extending the criticism were probably just assholes who enjoyed that they would never have to answer to their words.  And in the same way, the marathon bombings will not serve as a viable excuse when fans from Boston and Chicago inevitably riot in the streets when their team wins or loses this Stanley Cup.

Professional sports are played by select men and women lucky enough and ridiculous enough to make a career out of playing a game.  However, just as the “Boston Strong” motto was allegedly hijacked by industry, so have been sports themselves; hockey players are able to make millions off of hitting a piece of rubber towards a guy in a mask, and clothing companies such as Cubby Tees are able to profit off of art they create in response to these games.

When satirizing something, you first must be aware, from all angles, who may be affected by your “art.”  In the case of the marathon bombings, I initially looked at the “Toronto Stronger” signs and the “Chicago Stronger” shirt as an ill-timed insult that said something sarcastically to the effect of, “sorry about those bombs, but my city is better than yours” because of the timing of the acts.  Taking a step back, I also understand the idea that this slogan of hope for recovery becoming a slogan of hope to score more points than the other team separates it from the tragedy and cheapens it.  But, to me, grief is not something that is required to be logical, often times isn’t, and that is why it’s off-limits.

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